It Isn’t Paranoia


“we’ll become” by Genista is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The year was 1980. I was sitting in a dimly lit hospital room. The pale yellow walls were streaked with cigarette smoke. A woman sat on the edge of the bed, her arms pressed against her middle, her eyes fixed on the floor.

She rocked back and forth, a rhythmic self-soothing motion that was somehow both sad and frustrating. A lit cigarette dangled from her dry lips.

I was in the room with a young and eager psychiatrist, newly minted and ready to help. His questions were asked in a gentle voice, in perfect American English. I was there to translate them into the Russian spoken by our elderly patient.

She was a recent immigrant to Boston from what was then the Soviet Union. She was one of a wave of Russian Jews who were coming to the US with the help of the aid organization HIAS. I was one of a handful of young interpreters who helped with their resettlement. Today I was interpreting an intake assessment for a severely depressed older woman and her psychiatrist. She had been admitted to the hospital the night before when her son found her unable to settle, to stop pacing or to be calmed.

The assessment didn’t take long, because the patient failed to answer most of the questions. Instead, she repeatedly mumbled about strangers in black jackets who she feared would break down the door. She stood up a few times to peer out the small window, scanning the street for the “black cars” that would come to take her away to an unknown prison.

After the interview, I sat with the psychiatrist, another doctor and a psychiatric nurse to review and clarify what had been recorded. As we finished, the young psychiatrist turned to his supervisor and said, “It certainly seems like paranoid delusions. She actually believes that strangers are going to come and take her away in the night.” The team was planning to treat her for psychosis.

“Wait,” I said. I didn’t usually say much in meetings like this, because I was only a 22 year old Soviet Studies major with no medical training. But this time it was different.

“She isn’t making this up,” I told the team. “In the 1930s, under Stalin, the secret police broke open her door in the middle of the night. She and her husband were taken away and put in prison. He was sent to Siberia and he never came back.”

I looked at the frowning faces in front of me. They didn’t know the history of the Soviet Union under the dictator Josef Stalin. In the middle of an American summer day, the idea of unmarked secret police taking people away without any evidence of a crime seemed improbable enough to make them doubt my story. This was the United States. There were laws protecting citizens from this kind of illicit action.

They couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. But I knew it was. I had studied the history, but I had also spoken to the survivors. This frail woman, rocking and smoking and living in constant fear, was not the first survivor of Stalin’s regime that I’d met. I head heard her story from her son, and from her current husband. I had heard similar stories of men going out to work and never coming home. I knew one man who had been snatched off the street and sent to a labor camp where he was held for five years, never knowing whether his family was still alive.

I finally convinced the team that what I was telling them was true, and they verified it through the patient’s family. Her treatment was adjusted and within a few weeks the worst of her severe depression and anxiety was eased.

I think about her sometimes.

Lately, though, I think more about that medical team. If they are still alive now, what do they think of what is happening in the US today?

Do they realize now how easy it is for people to slowly lose their rights? Do they understand how an autocratic leader can convince people that in order to be safe they need to give up some freedoms?

I hope that as they watch the news unfolding in Portland, they recognize the incredible danger facing the US at this moment. I hope they speak out, loudly. I hope they share the story of that one old survivor and what happened to her family.

Is This Offensive?


Does it even matter what I think?

It seems more than a little bit odd to me to hear people out there arguing about what is offensive and what isn’t.

It’s especially strange to hear white people, who make up pretty much my entire social circle, arguing about what makes something offensive to black Americans.

Is Aunt Jemima’s image on the syrup bottle “offensive” or is it just a meaningless picture? How about Uncle Ben? Is a statue of General Lee offensive? Or is it a monument to a cultural history?

As is so often true, when I think about the big questions that trouble adults, I turn to my experience as a classroom teacher to guide me.

I’m remember one particular year of teaching fifth grade. My students were a sweet combination of innocent and sassy. As ten year olds, they were still gentle and tender. They liked me, I liked all of them, and we had a good rapport. But as almost-adolescents, they’d begun to test some of my limits. A few kids had tried out “bad words” in the classroom, and we were discussing why some words were offensive.

One of the best parts about teaching kids this age is watching when one or two of them get that glint of mischief in their eyes and try to push the envelope a bit. In this case, a few of the kids wanted to experience the thrill of saying the forbidden words, so they started to ask me, in whispers, which words to avoid.

“Is ‘shit’ a swear?” (Giggle). “Can I say ‘dammit’?” (Giggle)

I realized pretty quickly that it was time for us to regroup and talk. I gathered the kids on the rug in our “meeting area”.

“OK,” I began. “I am not going to give you a list of acceptable and unacceptable words. There are millions of words in the English language and we aren’t going to check each one.”

I looked around the circle at all the eager faces and bright eyes.

NOTE: If you ever want to capture the attention of 25 ten year olds, tell them you’re going to talk about swears.

“A swear is a word that hurts someone. It’s a word that makes someone feel bad, or makes them uncomfortable. Even if it’s a word or a phrase that you don’t mind at all, if it hurst someone else, you don’t say it.”

They were thoughtful for a minute. A hand was raised.

“So is ‘stupid’ a swear?”

I let the kids talk about it. They realized that they knew the answer. If I say, “This stupid shoe won’t stay tied,” then it isn’t offensive. If I call my classmate “stupid”, then it is.”

I’m sure they were a little disappointed that we weren’t going to try out various spellings of the f- word, but my point had been made.

Next I asked the kids to do me a favor. I told them that sometimes we say or do things that offend others and we don’t know it. I told them that I would appreciate it if they’d tell me any time I said or did something that hurt them or offended them.

One sweet, kind little girl raised her hand. I was surprised, because I couldn’t imagine what I might have done to offend her. I asked her to tell me what was wrong.

“Could you please not say “God”? My family goes to church, and my mom says it’s wrong to say “Oh, my God”, but sometimes you say it.”

She was right. I said that phrase a LOT.

But I looked into the deep brown eyes of my trusting student, and I promised her that I would do my absolute best never to say it in front of her again.

“God” was an offensive word to this religious little girl, when I said it in that phrase.

The kids understood the lesson and we never had to revisit the question of what words were offensive.

If your action, your logo, your statue, your language, your clothing hurts someone else, you can’t keep using it.

Thanks, children. As usual, you show us the way.